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Has Rishabh Pant’s injury exposed Delhi Capitals’ deceptive strength in depth

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Delhi are sweating on Rishabh Pant's fitness

@ IPL: T20

Has Rishabh Pant’s injury exposed Delhi Capitals’ deceptive strength in depth

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Anirudh Suresh

10/12/2020

Schoolboy error: a basic mistake, like one that a person with no experience of an activity would make.

Trading a world-class off-spinner and a senior cricketer who would add plenty of experience to the side? Check.

Roping in a nifty Indian seamer with a truckload of IPL experience? Check.

Snatching a power-hitter in the middle-order who can double up with Rishabh Pant? Check.

Signing a versatile, world-class batting all-rounder who can be a match-winner anywhere he bats from 1 to 7? Check.

Signing an overseas wicket-keeper who is also seen as one of the best finishers in the world? Check.

No question the Delhi Capitals staff would have been chuffed post the auction on December 19, 2019. It was unanimously acclaimed that Delhi had the best auction amongst all the eight teams and one got the sense that, almost overnight, they had moulded the side into one with no evident weakness. It is Delhi’s ‘strength in depth’ which, many believe, will give them the cutting edge as we get deeper into the season and to be fair, one look at their squad will tell you that they boast of a second XI that could blow a few teams away on its day. 

But, all said and done, have we been duped and deceived all this while? Contrary to popular belief, did the DC management, in fact, drop the ball in the auction? For the injury to Rishabh Pant has put the balance of the entire DC side in jeopardy and has exposed a truth that has been hiding in plain sight all this while: that the Delhi squad is not as strong as we think it is, and that the side’s strength in depth in batting is paper-thin.

Having made no changes to their top six in each of the first six games, Delhi, on Sunday, were forced to make two. Pant being injured meant that he had to leave the side, but the absence of a back-up Indian wicket-keeper meant that it was, in fact, Ajinkya Rahane who took his place, with Alex Carey, the only back-up wicket-keeper in the squad, replacing an in-form Shimron Hetmyer to fill in as the standby gloveman.

What would and should have been a straightforward “wk-for-wk” swap, had Delhi had an Indian gloveman in the squad, instead ended up flipping the dynamic of the side upside down and thus, unsurprisingly, led to the team slumping to a scathing five-wicket defeat. 

This begs the question: what were the management thinking at the auction? How could a side like Delhi, blessed with some of the best coaching staff in the world, commit as silly a schoolboy error as not purchasing a back-up Indian wicket-keeper?

Having let go of Ankush Bains post the 2019 season, Delhi entered the auction knowing very well that Pant was the only keeper at their disposal. Yet no move was made to sign any Indian glovesman, with Carey being their only wk purchase. The blunder went unnoticed for close to a year but on Sunday, Delhi’s worst nightmare came true and they were left to rue the decision to not snap up an Indian keeper. 

Pant picking up an injury is the worst-case scenario for Delhi, not because of him being the nucleus of the batting line-up, but because it simultaneously upsets the inherent dynamic of the side and exposes the lack of available and viable options at their disposal. In the absence of Pant, the team Delhi fielded versus Mumbai on Sunday is the best they can assemble but as was evident from their showing on the day, the batting unit that took to the field is simply not skilful or versatile enough to take full toll of conditions. 

A top four of Shaw, Dhawan, Rahane and Iyer - three batsmen with sub 130 strike rates in their IPL career - will always, more often than not, unless in the rare case of one of them playing a blinder, will leave the middle and lower order with a lot to do at the back-end. While such a scenario is less than ideal for any side, what makes the situation a living hell for Delhi is that, in the absence of Pant and Hetmyer, with the XI they fielded on Sunday, the only scenario in which they could possibly and realistically score an abundance of runs towards the back-end would be if Marcus Stoinis fires. Barring Stoinis, none of Delhi’s Top 6 that played versus Mumbai has had a SR over 160 in overs 16-20 in T20s since the start of 2019. 

This flaw was underlined in Sunday’s encounter as post-Stoinis’ departure, 32 runs were all Delhi could score in their last 20 balls, despite having a set Dhawan batting the innings out. And that’s where the problem lies for Delhi - in the absence of Pant and Hetmyer, two capable six hitters, a bulk of six-hitting responsibility, if not all, will fall on Stoinis every single game. This is because Shaw is bound to get dismissed before the 12th over on 90% of the games, Rahane and Dhawan, as was evident yesterday, will hurt the side if they bat too long, Carey is not by any means a ‘hitter’ in T20 cricket - he has a SR of 130 and most of his runs have come as an opener - and Iyer, minus the Sharjah knock versus KKR, who has only one 40+ score at a SR over 140 since the start of last season, is an unreliable finisher. 

There could have been a way out of the mess for Delhi had they had an Indian wicket-keeper on the bench or a strong depth in the batting department, but unfortunately for them, they have neither. DC have strength in depth, which is true but what’s often forgotten or not mentioned is that it applies only to bowling. Of the 22 players in the Delhi squad, 13 are either bowlers or bowling all-rounders incapable of fitting into the Top 6. As things stand, Lalit Yadav is the only viable ‘batsman’ Delhi can turn to and he, too, averaged a paltry 20 in the 2019 Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. All of a sudden, the decision to overload the team with bowlers seems like a not-so-wise one.

In retrospect, Delhi would probably be looking back and ruing the fact that they signed Daniel Sams. Post the injury to Jason Roy, knowing they were thin on the batting front, Delhi could so easily have opted to sign a batsman but they instead went ahead with yet another bowling all-rounder, Sams, who at the moment is sixth or seventh choice in the pecking order. 

What’s clear though is that this Delhi side simply cannot do without the services of both Pant and Hetmyer. However, in the absence of Pant, how Hetmyer can be drafted into the side, particularly with no standby wicket-keeper other than Carey in the squad, is a problem that the management will have to solve. One solution can be to throw the gloves to Hetymyer himself - he has kept in games sporadically in the past - but whether the southpaw is skilled enough and can be trusted to keep to Ashwin and Axar is a question that will need to be asked. Another will be to bring in Hetmyer in place of Anrich Nortje, but such a move will prove counterproductive to the building block of the team’s strength, which is their pace unit spearheaded by the Proteas duo. 

All's not lost yet, given Delhi are sitting mighty at second in the points table and in all likelihood will get back the services of their talisman, Pant, by next week, but should the unthinkable happen, there will be no easy way out of the chaos for the team. But given Delhi’s track record, given what’s happened with this club in the last 12 years, don’t be surprised if they blow the opportunity to win the title due to a schoolboy error they committed in the auction.

Let’s just hope the management has “signing an able Indian wicket-keeper who can serve as an injury back-up” in the checklist by the time the next auction beckons. 

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